It had been six days since we started digging, and the whole team—made up of Mongolians, Americans, and a contingent of French-Canadians—had gathered in the dining hall for the first end of week celebration. It was the first “party night” of the season, and those of us new to the project did not know what to expect. After a few words from the project directors, one of the Mongolian students, first to be handed the communal cup, stood and began to sing. It was a beautiful song, though I could not understand what he was singing about. My friend Byambaa leaned in close and said--“In Mongolia, we sing about three things: mothers, mountains, and horses.” This song, he said, was about a famous racing stallion.
Mongolian culture revolves around horses in many ways, and not just in the sense that they are essential working animals. Their broad significance is evident in the horse-racing medals hung proudly on the walls of the ger; the sound effects of whinnies and hoof beats ubiquitous in Mongolian pop songs; the fermented mare’s milk (it tastes like yogurt and kombucha) that is such a delicacy in the summer; even the emblem on the MIAT airplane wing that I watched, superimposed on a distant background of steppeland, as I flew into Mongolia for the first time.
Since I have spent my whole life around horses, I was excited to learn about horses and horsemanship in Mongolia while I was there for the summer conducting archaeological research. In the field, horses were regular visitors to our work sites, and I observed them many times trotting in tight formation toward the shade of an old winter camp. In the evenings, I watched them come to the river to drink and eat the rich grasses on the banks. The horses navigated the landscape expertly, led by a stallion with ever-alert ears and an unshorn mane. I learned that their herder would watch from a distance with binoculars, coming to fetch them only if they wandered too far or if he needed to catch another riding horse. Sometimes I would run into herders on horseback, who often offered to let me ride when I showed them pictures of my own horse. I soon grew used to the small, wooden Mongolian saddles—I was thankful for the tight seat more than once as I sped across the uneven landscape!
Though most of the Mongolian students on the dig could not speak English and I could not speak Mongolian, horses provided a way for us to communicate with each other. I spent many evenings sitting with my Mongolian friends and drawing horses. They taught me the words for different equine colors and markings, which are used when referring to individual horses (they are not otherwise named); they taught me the words for hitching lines and tack, and for each part of the horse’s leg and foot; they taught me about the wrapped forelocks of racing horses and the tradition of horse branding (one friend drew his family’s brand—three suns in a circle—on the flank of every horse I drew).
Not only did observing and interacting with horses in Mongolia help me think about questions of ancient pastoralism and horse domestication—an academic interest of mine—but it also helped me connect with people in Mongolia more than anything else. A language barrier that could seem insurmountable at times seemed to vanish when horses were involved, and a shared love of horses meant an automatic rapport with so many of the people I met. I fell in love with Mongolia and its horses, and I look forward to the next time I see the emblem of the stallion—teeth bared and mane flying—on the wing of a plane descending over the Mongolian steppe.